With its bleak vision of an alcoholic British diplomat in Mexico, Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 semi-autobiographical novel, UNDER THE VOLCANO, was considered unfilmmable for nearly forty years. Director John Huston returned to his beloved Mexico to film the picture in 1982.
When the film was released in June 1984, audiences preferred escapist fare like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. While most film score fans preferred John Williams’ excellent sequel score, by bypassing Huston’s more cerebral picture, they missed Alex North’s moving Oscar-nominated work.
Under the Volcano contains a striking, macabre main title sequence that sets up the first scene on the Day of the Dead celebration and strikes an unsettling chord for the rest of the film. Directed by Huston’s son, Danny, fresh out of film school, the sequence was shot on a steadicam dancing around papier-mache skeleton dolls. North had spent time in Mexico in the 1930s and the score utilizes the composer’s “love” for the country and Mexican music, with the main title thematic material based on Mexican motifs.
The sequence is characterized by a pointillistic feel, beginning with delicate pizzicato strings and staccato woodwinds. A synthesizer and a wide array of percussion instruments—including castanets, guiro, sleigh bells, tambourine, xylophone (struck with large nails), Chinese blocks, log drums, cabasa and maraca (one in each hand), marimba, vibes, cowbells, gong/water gong, and boo-bams—combine to contribute to the music’s South-of-the-border flavor and sarcastic air. Particularly note-worthy is the use of a booze bottle struck with a triangle beater, cleverly cluing us in to Albert Finney’s alcoholism before we’ve even seen it.
The main title is split into two distinct halves. The first half concentrates on “pure dance and playful movement,” writes North biographer Sanya Shoilevska Henderson, while the second has a more sophisticated musical texture. The two parts can be seen as the “profane” and the “sacred,” especially in North’s use of an old church motet for the muted French horn theme in the second half of the cue. This theme will occur throughout the score to convey Finney’s illusions. The sequence ends with what North called the “volcano chord,” a cluster of B-flat, B, C and C-sharp major chords that accompanies the threat of Popocatepetl volcano looming onscreen.
The main title “alone [is] worth the price of admission,” wrote Mike Snell in Quirk’s Reviews. I didn’t think so then. Twenty-five years later it’s a different story.